There’s A Secret Hiding Inside The Caves Of One Of America’s Most Iconic Natural Landmarks

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Walter Peck ambles down a Grand Canyon trail on his way to play poker with friends. But he has no idea that his journey is about to take a terrifying turn. You see, the woodcutter almost loses his footing – narrowly avoiding plunging into a gaping, funnel-shaped hole along the way. Peck is intrigued by the yawning abyss, but he foregoes exploring it in favor of poker night. However, he comes back the next day to delve further into the cave – and he finds something truly shocking inside.

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Peck enlisted his friends to help explore the hole he had found the night before, too. They perhaps had the idea that they were about to uncover buried treasure. So the group send one of their own – a local cowboy – down into the dark crevasse with a rope around his waist. The gang above let out 150 feet of rope until the cowboy touched the bottom of the cave. But the man had already passed a disturbing sight on the way down.

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And when the cowboy came out of the hole, he described the scary vision to his buddies. A third of the way down, he said, he noticed two skeletons on a tier. The spooky discovery wasn’t exactly the gold that Peck had hoped for. And yet the caverns he discovered that day have since raked in plenty of cash – for an entirely different reason.

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Yes, while the Grand Canyon is incredibly famous, the massive gorge isn’t the only opening in the area worthy of exploration. And Peck learned this first-hand in 1927 – the date he discovered the gaping hole along a trail in the dark. But, as already mentioned, the woodcutter had to wait until he had a crew and the proper equipment before he could explore inside.

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Almost immediately, though, Peck had high hopes for the hole. He told his buddies all about it at that poker game, for instance. And it seems that the young man hoped that the opening would give way to a gold mine – in the most literal sense of the term. It wouldn’t have been unheard of for such a discovery, either. But what the group actually found was much stranger.

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The cowboy the gang lowered into the hole brought a coal oil lantern with him to light up the hole’s deepest depths. He would need it, too, as he had to descend 150 feet before he reached the bottom. Once there, though, the flickering flame reflected off of a glittery material that sparkled in the cowboy’s eye.

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Upon further inspection, the cowboy found that a vein of metallic material ripped through his rocky surroundings. It appeared to be gold – but he didn’t want to take any chances. So the cowboy filled a pouch full of samples then tugged on the rope so that his friends could pull him back up to the surface.

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When the cowboy reached the top, he emptied his sack and all of its glittering contents in front of Peck. But not everything he had seen in the cave was that shiny. As he dangled in the middle of the cave, you see, the cowboy had noticed something else: a pair of skeletons laid to rest about 50 feet into the hole.

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At first, Peck had no interest in the bones; he only had eyes for the potential vein of gold hidden in the cave. So Peck quickly purchased the land to excavate the precious metal. Somewhat stupidly, though, he did so before anyone could determine the type of rock that he had found.

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And as it turned out, that vein of gold was just a streak of rust or iron oxide. So Peck had poured his cash into a literal money pit – or so it seemed at first. But then the woodcutter came up with another idea. This one revolved around the skeletons that the cowboy had seen inside of the cave.

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Unbelievably, then, Peck marketed the skeletal remains as those of cavemen. And he invited the brave and the bold to come to his cavern to check them out. Of course, these visitors couldn’t just walk down and see the bones themselves. Instead, the cave-owner would wrap rope around his customers and lower them into the hole to catch a glimpse of the bodies. The attraction came to be known as “Dope on a Rope.”

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Eventually, though, this primitive elevator got an upgrade. For in 1935 the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration helped struggling Americans to work during the Great Depression. And in that year the CCC came to an agreement with Peck – providing him the laborers he needed to open a new entrance to his cave.

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Peck only had to provide the materials for the laborers. In return, they built a wooden staircase inside of the caverns as well as a trio of 15-foot ladders and a 60-foot suspension bridge. And with those structures in place, visitors would just have to descend 15 stories on foot to see the caverns – costing 50 cents per head.

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Later on, Peck’s rope-based lift would be replaced with an actual elevator, too. That happened in 1962, at which point the natural entrance – the one into which Peck had almost fallen in 1927 – was sealed forever. This decision had more to do with the discovered skeletons than with the new elevator, though.

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You see, experts were able to determine the identities of the two skeletons found by Peck’s cowboy friend in the 1920s. It turned out that, in the decade prior, Hualapai Indians had ascended the hilltop above the cavern. There, they had chopped firewood – and a pair of them had become sick with the flu.

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The two men were brothers, and both had perished in their fight with influenza. This had left the rest of the Hualapai tribe with a choice: bring the bodies back and risk infecting everyone else, or bury the dead on top of the hill. The latter made the most sense, but a recent snowfall had made it impossible for the Indians to dig a grave.

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Fortunately, the surviving Hualapai remembered that somewhere on the hilltop was an opening to a 50-foot-deep hole. And they could use the expanse as a makeshift grave. Of course, they’d had no idea that the hole extended into caverns nearly 200 feet below the surface.

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Neither could the Hualapai have imagined that their brethren’s grave would become a tourist attraction. So the Hualapai made a request in 1962 when the elevator went into Peck’s caverns. Yes, they wanted the hole’s true entry point sealed permanently. For the tribe considered the burial site sacred and wanted to keep it that way.

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Still, experts have taken time to explore the area near the natural entrance, sealed or not. And unbelievably, excavations have uncovered the remains of the extinct giant ground sloth, which roamed the earth at the same time as the woolly mammoth and the saber-toothed tiger. In fact, the skeletal remains indicate that the mammal – part of a species that disappeared 11,000 years ago – would have stood more than 15 feet tall.

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Nowadays, though, you’d be hard-pressed to find any creatures roaming inside of the caverns. According to Atlas Obscura, the expanse doesn’t exactly lend itself to ideal living conditions. This is because of the cavern’s “extreme depth, perpetual and complete darkness, and zero humidity.”

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Yet while these conditions have made the cave inhospitable for animals, plants and insects, they can be utilized in other ways. Oddly, President John F. Kennedy took note of them during his tenure in office, too. He felt that the cavern could be a valuable resource in the ongoing struggle between the States and the Soviet Union. How so?

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Well, in October 1961 the United States discovered that the Soviet Union had placed missiles in Cuba, causing a stand-off that almost ignited the Cold War. So, during a tense two weeks, Kennedy sought out places for Americans to hide in case those Cuba-based bombs started flying. And one such spot he pinpointed were the caverns discovered by Peck.

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But Kennedy didn’t just highlight these holes on a map for evacuees. Instead, he sent supplies to fill the cavern to sustain life, should locals have to hide down there. And the Kennedy presidency stocked the caves with enough food to feed 2,000 people for a month. Fortunately, though, no one ever had to take refuge from an international crisis in the natural bunker.

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So eventually the Grand Canyon caverns instead became a highlight for tourists. For a time, visitors only wanted to see the caves hidden deep underground. Today, though, guests can also stop by for an entirely different purpose. In fact, the caverns have transformed into a hotel suite – and people can pay to stay overnight. You’ll never guess what it’s called, either.

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Or perhaps you will. The Cavern Suite, as it’s named, came to be in 2010. At that time, the cave’s owners wondered if guests would really pay top dollar to sleep in the dark expanse overnight. Well, they came to realize that the answer was yes. According to The Arizona Republic in 2018, the suite is booked approximately 100 nights of the year. So what exactly is the first thing guests do on arrival at the not-so-typical hotel?

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Well, every overnight guest at The Cavern Suite will start their stay with a tour of their rocky surrounds. It begins with a one-minute elevator ride from the surface – now home to a restaurant and gift shop. And the doors slide open to a hallway cut through stone, which leads visitors into the cavern.

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Firstly, guests come upon the Chapel of Ages, housed in a dome-topped section of the cave. Some of the couples married here have left behind their wedding-day bouquets, too, and the cavern’s dry conditions have preserved the blooms. On normal days, though, the space has a seating area that’s just like an average living room.

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From the Chapel of the Ages, overnight guests have only a small wooden staircase to ascend to get to their room. Once inside, they’re likely quick to notice that the word “room” doesn’t describe the space accurately. No, The Cavern Suite has no walls, which can make for uncomfortable run-ins during the daily tours of the cave.

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In fact, Levi Goldsmith – the caverns’ head tour guide as of 2018 – explained that visitors descend for tours every half-hour between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Sometimes, the daily schedule can include an evening ghost tour, too. Goldsmith said that he occasionally catches suite guests in compromising positions. He admitted, “Every now and then you see someone naked.”

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Outside of tour hours, those who stay in The Cavern Suite have plenty to enjoy in their underground lair. For one thing, the space has stunning acoustics. As Goldsmith explained to The Arizona Republic, “You can have two people stand at opposite ends of the room, and they can hear one another easily while speaking in normal conversational tones. It’s pretty incredible.”

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The acoustics would also suit a concert, which is why the caverns have a small stage tucked just behind the bedroom suite. For now, though, guests can enjoy the sound by speaking to one another or listening to music on the in-suite turntable. Or they can watch a movie on the 32-inch TV. There’s no cable 200 feet underground, though, so guests have to pop in one of the DVDs from the hotel’s selection.

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And the basic entertainment center – flanked by old copies of National Geographic – highlights that The Cavern Suite is certainly not a luxury accommodation. Instead, most guests fork over the $800-a-night fee because of the space itself, not its amenities. One look at the suite’s bathroom all but confirms that point.

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Yes, the underground bathroom has limited access to water, so guests can only flush the toilet five to six times per stay. But Goldsmith told The Arizona Republic that many start to doubt how many times they’ve flushed. In this instance, then, they have to make their way outside of the cave. He explained, “When I hear the elevator, it’s mostly because someone’s coming up to use the restrooms.”

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But the cave itself is a big enough draw to negate the suite’s lack of normal amenities. After the tours end for the night, guests truly have the caverns to themselves. There aren’t any cameras or intercoms, and the suite phone doesn’t work. An attendant sleeps upstairs each night, though, and can arrange meal deliveries for the guests.

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Other than that, the attendant steers clear – and the suite’s guests have free reign of the caverns. Yes, they can stroll the mile-long loop of trails through the caves in the after hours. The suite comes with enough flashlights for all guests to check out their rocky surroundings – even in pitch-black darkness.

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Plenty of adventurous families check into The Cavern Suite for the night, too. More often than that, though, couples take advantage of the peaceful, secluded surroundings. They tend to visit the one-of-a-kind accommodation for a special occasion, birthday or anniversary. The staff will even provide champagne or decor to celebrate.

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For instance, John and Bev Riffle are among the more-than-1,000 people who have stayed in the suite since it opened. The pair put a night in the underground suite on their bucket list and first checked in on Valentine’s Day years ago. Former pawn shop owner John paid for the overnight visit with an unlikely currency: he handed over 1,000 license plates.

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For John and Bev, though, the experience more than made up for the high cost of their stay. And John particularly relished in their solo trek through the caverns. In fact, he said that as he shined his flashlight over the rocks, the view transported him back thousands of years. The former pawn shop owner wondered what it had been like to live then, too.

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As for the rest of their evening, John and Bev flipped on the suite’s TV and ate dinner together. Then they turned out the lights and went to sleep. Well, almost all of the lights. The couple admitted that the cave’s complete darkness did make them uncomfortable, so they left one bulb lit.

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In the end, John told The Arizona Republic that the overnight stay at The Cavern Suite was “a once-in-a-lifetime experience, especially at the price.” He said the caverns were “unlike anywhere we’ve ever stayed.” And you can have the same experience if you check into the hotel. Just remember, it’s no longer part of a nuclear crisis or a bad gold-mining expedition.

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Yet it’s far from the only mysterious underground cave out there. In a strange and magical cave deep beneath the town of Naica in Chihuahua, Mexico, for instance, NASA researchers are investigating bizarre crystals that have formed underground over millennia. Then, when the team return to the surface, they discover something incredible inside the sparkling formations: organisms that have come back to life after many thousands of years.

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Ever since its founding in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has worked to further mankind’s understanding of the universe. And from the first manned mission to the Moon to the wonders of the Hubble Space Telescope, the agency has overseen many successes over the years.

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However, one mission that continues to challenge NASA is the hunt for life on other worlds. At the end of the 1960s, the agency began lending its expertise to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). This is the collective name for a group of scientific endeavors that strive to find signs of alien civilizations.

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In 1992 NASA embarked on a ten-year SETI program called the High Resolution Microwave Survey. But not even a year later, Congress put a stop to the research. Apparently, a combination of budget issues and a lack of scientific support cut the project short before it could really begin.

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Today, private investors fund some of SETI’s work, which is conducted in observatories and laboratories around the world. And NASA is still involved behind the scenes too. In fact, even now, organizations are scanning the heavens, searching for technosignatures that might finally alert us to life on other planetary bodies.

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SETI’s endeavors, then, typically involve looking towards the stars. Yet some researchers have been searching for answers in a rather more unlikely location. Deep below Naica – a town located in the northwestern Mexican state of Chihuahua – an astonishing discovery has been made. And it’s a discovery that could have a profound effect on the search for alien life.

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The first hint that Naica held stunning scientific secrets came in 1910, when workers discovered a cavern hidden beneath the town’s mine. Located almost 400 feet below the surface, the hole in the rock was found to be filled with glittering crystals – some reaching as much as 3 feet in length.

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Dubbed the Cave of Swords, this impressive find was, however, merely a taste of things to come. Yes, in April 2000 workers who were attempting to recover silver and lead from the mine stumbled across something far more incredible. Apparently, in their search for valuable resources, the miners had used a pumping system to remove groundwater from the caverns below the town.

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But after Naica’s caverns had dried up, they revealed another cave full of stunning crystals – this time almost 1,000 feet below the surface. And within the main chamber, some of the massive chunks of gypsum had grown to over 30 feet in length. In fact, the biggest example measures almost 40 feet from end to end.

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Remarkably, this makes the Naica specimens among the biggest natural crystals ever discovered. A type of sulfate mineral, gypsum is utilized as fertilizer – or as a component in items such as plaster and blackboard chalk. However, in its raw form, the mineral occurs in nature as a beautiful, transparent substance sometimes known as selenite.

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With its magical, almost unearthly atmosphere, the Cave of the Crystals soon became famous around the globe. But it wasn’t just its otherworldly qualities that got people talking. You see, conditions in the cavern are unusually harsh, no doubt making the site of particular interest to the scientific community.

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In fact, temperatures inside the Cave of the Crystals can reach a blistering 136 °F, with humidity levels as high as 99 percent. And although various researchers were keen to study these intense conditions, the cavern – unsurprisingly – presented its own unique set of challenges. For example, researchers needed protective suits for any visits that lasted longer than ten minutes.

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Despite such intense challenges, though, a team of researchers led by the University of Bologna’s Paolo Forti began exploring the cavern in 2006. Equipped with special suits that allowed them to cope with the extreme temperatures, members of the team conducted a variety of studies on the crystals.

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What’s more, one expert, Stein-Erik Lauritzen of the University of Bergen, Norway, subsequently determined that the crystals are incredibly old – potentially dating back as much as 500,000 years. Then, in 2008, NASA researcher Penelope Boston began her own investigation into the strange world beneath the Naica Mine. Yes, with the help of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Boston launched a quite different study into the ancient gypsum structures.

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As an astrobiologist, Boston was looking for something specific within the crystals: evidence that life might be able to survive in such challenging conditions. And by studying the existence of extreme life on Earth, she and her colleagues hoped to learn more about where we might look for alien life – and what to expect once we find it.

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At first, the cave photographs amazed Boston so much that she believed they had been digitally altered. But subsequently she found herself inside the cavern – its giant sparkling crystals as real as anything – working alongside her team to extract samples from deep within the formations. Apparently, liquid-filled cavities had formed inside the structures over time, and it was within these recesses that the researchers hoped to find life.

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Then, almost a decade later, in February 2017, experts gathered in Boston, Massachusetts, for a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And there, Boston announced the results of her research. Amazingly, the team had discovered as many as 100 different organisms trapped within the crystals.

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The creatures were mainly types of bacteria, with some forms of archaea also present. Incredibly, moreover, Boston believes that the organisms could have been living underground for up to 60,000 years. And a staggering 90 percent of them had never been seen before.

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But in an underground cavern so hot that researchers took to calling it “hell,” how could these organisms possibly have survived? Well, experts believe that they may have developed the ability to feed on the cave’s copper oxide, iron, sulfides and manganese.

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“They’re really showing us what our kind of life can do in terms of manipulating materials,” Boston told The Telegraph in 2017. “These guys are living in an environment where there’s not organic food as we understand it. They’re an example at very high temperatures of organisms making their living essentially by munching down inorganic materials and compounds.”

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In scientific parlance, these creatures are called extremophiles – lifeforms that can survive in the most unlikely of environments. Yet it wasn’t simply the existence of these discoveries that made them so remarkable. Astoundingly, researchers also managed to bring the ancient organisms back to life.

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You see, it appears that the creatures existed in a state known as geolatency. This condition allows organisms to remain alive – yet dormant – for long periods of time. Some researchers in fact claim to have revived geolatent lifeforms after millions of years. Yet the scientific community has tended to treat such claims with a pinch of salt.

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According to Boston, though, her team successfully breathed new life into the creatures from the Cave of the Crystals. “Much to my surprise we got things to grow,” she told The Telegraph. “It was laborious. We lost some of them – that’s just the game. They’ve got needs we can’t fulfill. That part of it was really like zoo keeping.”

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Nobody, however, claims that the lifeforms found beneath Naica are the oldest to have been reanimated by science. And yet Boston nevertheless believes they are unique in their own way. “Other people have made longer-term claims for the antiquity of organisms that were still alive, but in this case these organisms are all very extraordinary. They are not very closely related to anything in the genetic database,” she told the BBC in 2017.

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Currently, Boston’s work has yet to be verified by the scientific community. But if the results are accurate, they will prove that organisms can survive under harsher conditions than previously believed. And in turn, this revelation could fundamentally change our knowledge about microorganisms on Earth.

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“These organisms have been dormant but viable for geologically significant periods of time, and they can be released due to other geological processes,” Boston told National Geographic in 2017. “This has profound effects on how we try to understand the evolutionary history of microbial life on this planet.”

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Meanwhile, the time that Boston and her team spent deep underground in the cave became a truly special undertaking for them. “It was a transformative experience,” she told The Telegraph. “It was a very hard environment to work in – but tear-inducingly beautiful. It’s like being inside a geode.” And it seems that some of the crystals were so big that the researcher could not even fit her arms around them.

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What’s more, from an astrobiological point of view, the discovery could have fascinating implications. If these microbes are so hardy, does that mean, for example, that extraterrestrial organisms could be equally tough? And if so, might spacecraft returning from other planets accidentally bring alien lifeforms along for the ride?

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NASA is aiming to bring samples from one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, back to Earth in the future. It appears, you see, that the salty water that lies beneath the moon’s crust makes it a strong contender for harboring alien life. And Dr. John Rummel from California’s SETI Institute has said that such organisms could survive the long trip back through space.

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“If we bring samples back from either Europa or Mars, we will contain them until hazard testing demonstrates that there is no danger and no life – or continue the containment indefinitely while we study the material,” Rummel told The Telegraph. “It is assumed that such life would be hardy – to survive the trip to Earth; not easy – and precautions taken would provide a very high degree of containment.”

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On the flip side, though, there is also concern that such robust organisms on Earth could complicate the search for alien life. You see, although NASA scientists take measures to sterilize their spacecraft before journeys out into the cosmos, it’s possible that some of our planet’s more durable species might get accidentally transported elsewhere.

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Even without these ramifications, though, the significance of Boston’s research is clear. “The astrobiological link is obvious in that any extremophile system that we’re studying allows us to push the envelope of life further on Earth. And we add it to this atlas of possibilities that we can apply to different planetary settings,” the BBC reported her as saying.

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In fact, many believe that if there is life present elsewhere in the universe, it could be found deep under the surface of alien planetary bodies, feeding on chemicals much as the organisms in the Cave of the Crystals reportedly do. And by learning more about how such lifeforms exist on Earth, we might increase our chances of finding them elsewhere.

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But Boston and her team’s findings haven’t convinced everyone. It seems, you see, that some researchers suspect the organisms might have come from the deposits of water that surround the crystals – rather than from inside the structures themselves. And experts have also expressed doubt about the lifeforms and their apparent ability to survive.

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“I think that the presence of microbes trapped within fluid inclusions in Naica crystals is in principle possible,” French National Center for Scientific Research microbiologist Purificación López-García told National Geographic in 2017. “However, [the notion] that they are viable after 10,000 to 50,000 years is more questionable.”

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“Contamination during drilling with microorganisms attached to the surface of these crystals or living in tiny fractures constitutes a very serious risk,” López-García continued. “I am very skeptical about the veracity of this finding until I see the evidence.” But Boston has been quick to point out that her team took steps to try and prevent such adulteration.

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In fact, the researchers reportedly used everything from special protective suits to sterilized equipment to help prevent any such contamination from occurring. And in some cases, the team even went so far as to cleanse the exterior of the crystals with fire. However, the results of their study remain open to debate until the work has been properly peer-reviewed.

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Unfortunately, too, opportunities for further research into these incredible organisms are limited at best. In 2017 the owners of the Naica Mine closed it down after it stopped turning over a profit. And without the aid of the enterprise’s pumps, the Cave of the Crystals flooded with groundwater once more.

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Still, Boston is seemingly confident that the samples in her laboratory may have more secrets to reveal. Apparently, in fact, the organisms are still growing; and she hopes that other researchers can continue where she left off. “Since I have stepped into a NASA management role now, my time for science is quite limited,” she told National Geographic.

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In order to further future research, then, Boston plans to make the organisms available for other scientists to study. Indeed, she described the lifeforms as a “precious resource” that she hopes to share. “There’s still a lot of work to do to infer anything about their history and movement and genetic relations,” she added. But maybe such efforts will one day pay off.

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